A 'Big' Moment for the Caldecott: Vashti Harrison is First Black Woman to Win Medal

Vashti Harrison earns a place in history with her 2024 Caldecott win for 'Big,' the first book she both wrote and illustrated.

Photo courtesy Vashti Harrison



Vashti Harrison was getting ready for bed. It was after 9 p.m. and had been eight hours since she was surprised by calls from the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award committee letting her know that the first picture book she wrote and illustrated, Big, had earned a CSK Author Award honor and a CSK Illustrator Award honor. That call made her wonder: Would another call be coming?

After many hours of anticipation, though, she decided to force herself to go to bed early. It was too late to get a call now, she was sure, so best to get her mind off of it. Then, at about 9:30, the phone rang. It was the Caldecott committee, sharing unexpected news. 

“I was really hoping for a Caldecott honor,” Vashti said on Monday after the Youth Media Awards ceremony announcement that Big is the 2024 Caldecott Medal winner. “I was shocked to hear her say 'Medal.' That felt like too big of a dream. I really am so humbled by that. Honestly, I never expected I could win the Medal.”

Harrison is the first Black woman to win the prestigious Caldecott, a historic distinction that she didn’t believe when her agent told her Monday morning.

“It didn't seem like that was possible,” Harrison said. “I feel like I'm coming in the footsteps of some really incredible people who have won the Caldecott Honor.… I was just shocked to know that no Black woman had won the full Medal before. I feel honored. But more than anything, I’m just grateful to create the space for more women to come after me, more Black women to share their stories and be celebrated.”

Harrison knows the enormity of the Caldecott recognition can open those doors.

“I know what a big deal the Caldecott is,” she said. “I know what that means for school libraries across the country [that] have very minimal budget to buy new books. It means that this book is going to get into so many more places."

Big, also a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, tells the story of a young girl who hears compliments for being such a “big girl” when she is young. But as she grows older, being big suddenly isn’t a positive quality anymore. The words become hurtful.

Harrison says she wrote and illustrated this picture book to say something about the adultification of young Black girls, anti-fat bias, and loving yourself. She believes the story resonates with all readers because of a sadly ubiquitous experience.

“Girls and their relationships with their bodies is very universal,” she said. “So, so many adult women have reached out to me to say, ‘Thank you for this story. This is my story. I wish I had a story like this when I was growing up. I want to share this with other young girls.’”

Harrison began the project in the fall of 2019, attempting to write out an idea that she couldn’t fully explain.

“I had the hardest time being open to sharing the story with other people, because none of it was fully formed yet,” she said. “I didn't know how to describe that I wanted to write a story that was about my experience with my body, but the story is not about me. It's about a girl, but she doesn't have a name. And she's going through this thing that I don't know how to say with words.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown hit, she began to focus on the idea more and started creating sketches. The project would take another two and a half years to complete. Along the way, she had a breakthrough realization.

“I had this sort of 'Aha!' moment when I realized I could use the gutter, I could use the trim size, I could use a gatefold to help kind of push that narrative of taking up space, of feeling like you don't fit,” she said. “Once that meta opportunity was open to me, I started thinking about the way that words functioned on the page and how this is a story about the words that we use with one another. So, if I'm going to be playing with the gutter, if I'm going to be playing with the physicality of the book, then that could extend to the printed text and the way dialogue and speech bubbles are used.”

At one point in the story, the little girl takes the hurtful words in her hands and returns them to those who said them. They are theirs, not hers.

It is the page in the book, Harrison says, that many people tell her they connect with most. But the next page is the one that Harrison finds most impactful—when some people tell the little girl they were just joking, that she is being too sensitive. When people confronted with their hurtful behavior push back by blaming the people they hurt, it is difficult to understand as a child or an adult. 

“I don't think I would have ever found the language to describe that as a young person,” she said. “It felt really powerful to be able to put it on the page and show it in this really literal way.”

But the girl realizes she can live separately from their words, release all of the hurt, and be happy with herself. Allowing the little girl to be the hero in her journey to loving herself was one of Harrison's goals for the book. Another—to make adults think about what they say to children.

“As much as I wanted this book to be a mirror for young Black girls, for it to be a window into their experience, I hoped that it could be an appeal to adults to really think about the words that they use with young people, to really consider how words impact kids,” she said. “I just wanted to create this visual way that we can understand how something that you might say, even in passing, might stick with a kid and affect them.”

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing